Reader-tested home remedies

FIRST IN A FIVE-PART SERIES

Exclusive survey results: herbal remedies

We recently tallied 5,000 readers' responses to our Prevention Home-Remedy Survey, and one thing is clear: Home remedies are practically a cottage industry! Those of you who filled out our survey report wide use of home remedies, on everything from everyday twists and scrapes to chronic conditions. Your ratings of "good," "fair" or "poor" indicate some landslide favorites (as well as a few failures). n This month we'll fill you in on the survey results regarding herbal remedies: how readers say they use them and how many readers feel they really work. In the months to follow, we'll report results for vitamin and mineral remedies, food remedies, exercises for body and mind and other miscellaneous remedies.

It's a unique opportunity for you to share experiences with your fellow Prevention readers and possibly glean new information on some valuable healing resources. We've included comments taken directly from the survey forms our readers filled out, so you can get that information "straight from the horse's mouth."

We were, frankly, impressed by the sheer numbers of people who have tried these herbal home remedies. Over 4,000 of the 5,000 people who responded to the survey say they tried aloe-vera gel on a minor burn, for example. Over 3,000 tried cranberry juice for a urinary infection.

"This suggests that there's tremendous interest in herbal remedies," says Prevention advisor Ara H. DerMarderosian, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy and medicinal chemistry, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. "But it also indicates a tremendous need for research on those remedies."

Indeed, there is an appalling lack of research on how well herbal remedies actually work--there has simply been little effort to find out.

While our survey did ascertain how well you say they worked for you, these anecdotes are no substitute for scientific evidence, our most reliable guide for effectiveness. We'd like to see controlled studies on herbal remedies: tests that pit the remedies against inactive look-alikes (placebos) in a head-to-head contest. That would tell us for sure how well they work (or don't work).

And, in fact, our survey results point out some herbal remedies we'd be wise to investigate. "If readers report 80 percent success with a particular remedy, that's a pretty good tip-off that it's worth looking into, even if there is a considerable placebo effect," says Dr. DerMarderosian. "This survey may help lay the foundation for scientific research into the efficacy of herbal products in medical treatment."

So here's what you had to say about how well herbal remedies worked for you. Where there's any kind of positive scientific evidence, we've indicated that. Otherwise, assume there's no clinical proof available at this time.

Aloe vera You gave the slippery gel squeezed from the aloe plant near-perfect marks in soothing and healing your minor burns. Eighty-seven percent of those who tried it report "good" results--the highest of any herbal remedy in our survey. Another 11 percent reported "fair" results.

"I'm not surprised at all," says Prevention advisor Varro Tyler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University. "Evidence seems to indicate that something in aloe gel inhibits the action of bradykinin, a peptide that produces pain in injuries like burns. It also inhibits the formation of thromboxane, a chemical detrimental to wound healing."

In a recent clinical trial, researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston applied a cream with aloe gel to patients with frostbite, which causes damage similar to that of a burn. Aloe healed them much more quickly than conventional treatment.

"I used aloe gel from the plant when I severely burned my leg on a hot motorcycle pipe," says a reader from Staten Island, New York. "This was the only way to keep the pain away--it healed beautifully and no scar, either."

And a reader from Spokane, Washington, says, "Aloe-vera gel from the plant greatly relieved my husband's neck burns from radiation therapy. The time to healing was less than two days. Pain relief was instantaneous."

Many readers say they keep an aloe plant in the kitchen. "Burns are common in my class," says a home-economics teacher from Bangor, Michigan. "Fresh aloe is the answer!"

Readers report success using fresh aloe to relieve the pain of sunburn and bee stings, too. Many also say they can't bear to be parted from the plant--they even bring an aloe leaf along on vacation.

While some people use aloe-vera juice as a laxative, long-term internal use is not advisable. Aloe contains potent colon stimulants, and prolonged use can lead to lazy-bowel syndrome, when the bowel can no longer function normally on its own.

Cranberry juice From out of damp bogs come little red berries that thwart urinary infections, according to Prevention readers. Seventy-eight percent of those who tried cranberry juice report good successrated second only to aloe.

"I am prone to urinary-tract infections, since many years ago I suffered a bout of cystitis that left a lot of scarring," says a woman from Murphysboro, Illinois. "Since then I've used cranberry juice--a small glass every morning--and I've never had a similar problem (with one exception when I stopped drinking cranberry juice). An old family physician (who charged $5 a visitand made house calls) recommended it."

And a reader from Bisbee, Arizona, expressed this popular sentiment: "I think cranberry juice may work better to prevent urinary infections than to cure them."

Yet a urologist from Shreveport, Louisiana, who participated in our survey says that in 30 years of practice "patients have never reported success" with cranberry juice.

Scientific work on cranberry juice has heated up lately, says Dr. Tyler. "They're finding that cranberry juice's action isn't due to its acid content, as folk wisdom has it, but to principles it contains that prevent infection-causing bacteria from adhering to the cells that line the bladder." Because they can't latch on, the theory goes, the bacteria flow out of the body with the urine. Evidence is still sketchy, but these findings may explain how cranberry juice might help prevent bladder infections. Some experts suggest, though, that the acidity of cranberry juice may further irritate a bladder that's already infected.

Cranberry juice is usually imbibed as a "cocktail" mixed with sugar (or sugar substitute) and water because it's highly acidic and too sour to drink straight. But one creative reader from Preston, Mississippi, relies on her own concoction: "Whole fresh cranberries and nonfat plain yogurt mixed in a blender with a little honey."

Garlic This pungent herb is potent medicine, our readers report. Over 37 percent of the 5,000 who answered our survey had tried garlic for a cold or infection, with 70 percent reporting "good" results.

"Some studies from Italy and Greece showed that the incidence of upper-respiratory infections was fairly low in countries where they eat a lot of garlic," says Dr. DerMarderosian. And garlic does contain a compound that produces an antibiotic, allicin, when one of the cloves is cut or crushed.

"I swear that garlic taken at the first hint of a sore throat makes any cold go away," says a reader from Cassiar, British Columbia. "I eat it roasted, boiled, stewed or fried, and all work. Fresh parsley helps to deodorize the garlic."

And a woman from Saco, Maine, adds that although she believes it works as a preventive for her, "It didn't do much for me after I already had caught a cold."

Over 28 percent of our 5,000 respondents had tried garlic for lowering cholesterol and the same percentage for lowering blood pressure. In each case, roughly 69 percent of them report good success.

"After one month on garlic, my blood pressure dropped from 164/92 to 130/78," says one reader. Another reports that "within four weeks it changed from 155/90 to 135/80."

Animal research has shown that garlic can lower blood pressure, but no reliable studies with humans have surfaced. It's pretty well documented, however, that very high doses of garlic may lower cholesterol.

"Garlic and carrots are excellent for reducing cholesterol," says a woman from Maple Grove, Quebec. "These two vegetables did it for me."

But's there's one hitch. "The modern studies seem to indicate that to get real therapeutic value from garlic, you have to eat an awful lot of it--in excess of five cloves a day," says Dr. Tyler. "I don't think many people in this country eat that much."

Oil of clove This toothache remedy is strong medicine--so strong that in its pure form it can cause permanent nerve damage. That's why dentists don't use it on a tooth with a salvageable nerve. Over-the-counter preparations that contain clove oil (or its derivative, eugenol) in lesser concentrations are safe, though, if used according to package directions.

Thirty-seven percent of those who wrote in say they tried clove oil for a toothache. Sixty-eight percent of them say they got good relief. hx0c "I'm surprised that that number wasn't higher," says Dr. Tyler. "Clove oil contains a proven anesthetic, eugenol. Perhaps those who didn't find relief didn't use the clove oil properly."

You have to get the clove oil on the nerve to deaden the pain, he says. So there has to be a cavity or crack through which the oil can penetrate to the nerve. "Those who didn't get good results may have had an infection in the root or other condition for which clove oil is ineffective."

Even if clove oil works for you, it should be used only as a stopgap measure until you can get to a dentist. As a woman from Atlanta, Georgia, put it, "oil of clove prolonged tooth problems because of my failure to visit a dentist." Another reported that it irritated her gums. Experts say that if your gums turn red, you've left the clove oil on too long.

Cherries Fourteen percent of the respondents tried using cherries for gout, a form of arthritis that causes painful joint inflammation. Sixty-seven percent report good results.

"It's surprising that people report such success with this remedy because there's not much documented evidence," says Dr. DerMarderosian. "There apparently have been no studies on this since the 1950s."

"Cherries for gout--it works for me," says a woman from Mildred, Pennsylvania. "I keep canned pie cherries on hand and try to eat them several times a week on cereal or dessert. When I don't eat them, I am in trouble."

Ginger This traditional herbal remedy keeps delicate stomachs settled, says 67 percent of the readers who tried it. And quite a few did try it to prevent nausea or motion sickness: 22 percent of the 5,000 who wrote in.

There's actually some good evidence that ginger can prevent motion sickness. In 1982, researchers studied 36 rather courageous students who had motion sickness. The valiant volunteers swallowed either 940 milligrams of powdered ginger in capsules, 100 mg. of Dramamine (a standard over-the-counter anti-motion-sickness pill) or capsules containing an inactive herb. Then they went for a ride, blindfolded, on a chair that tilted and revolved. The ginger group endured two minutes longer than the OTC group, and four minutes longer than the inactive herb group before becoming queasy (Lancet, March 20, 1982).

In a study from Denmark, 40 rookie sailors took one gram of ginger in unmarked capsules. Another 40 new naval cadets took blank look-alikes. The ginger group fared better in a four-hour jaunt on the high seas (Acta Otolaryngolica, January-February 1988).

More recently, another Danish study found that powdered gingerroot effectively reduced nausea and vomiting during pregnancy (hyperemesis gravidarum) that was severe enough to warrant hospitalization (European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, January 4, 1991).

And powdered ginger prevented nausea following major surgery as well as the standard drug used for that purpose in a study of 60 women, British researchers found (Anaesthesia, August 1990).

"Scientists don't know how it works," says Dr. Tyler. "But there is evidence ginger affects the stomach directly, rather than working through the central nervous system, as anti-motion-sickness drugs do."

"Ginger worked fine during a rough storm on a cruise," reports a woman from Reading, Pennsylvania. And a woman from Houston, Texas, felt she couldn't rate ginger either "good," "fair" or "poor," as our survey requested. "Where is your `Excellent--works every time' column? I would rate ginger for nausea as excellent," she says.

But another reader had a quite different experience: "Ginger tablets did virtually nothing against motion sickness compared with Dramamine."

For many years, ginger ale has been used as a remedy for a mildly upset stomach, but it really contains very little ginger. Powdered ginger capsules are available in health-food stores. Or you can raid your spice rack and dissolve a quarter of a teaspoon of ginger in hot water to make tea. Or munch on a small piece of crystallized ginger.

Peppermint The benefits of this herb may go deeper than just freshening breath. In animal studies, its main constituent, menthol, relaxed the muscular "trapdoor" between the esophagus and the stomach, allowing gas to escape. In other words, it promoted burping. Peppermint oil lowers the surface tension of gas bubbles, so uncomfortable gas is more easily released. And it calms agitated stomach muscles that are in the throes of indigestion.

About 56 percent of our survey respondents tried peppermint for gas or stomach upset. Sixty-three percent of them report good success.

"Peppermint oil works better than anything for my upset stomach," says a reader from Fort Worth, Texas.

But those prone to heartburn should beware. Peppermint may actually cause the problem by allowing stomach acid to escape into your esophagus, as a reader from Turnersville, New Jersey, can attest: "Peppermint gives me heartburn!" Others may find it irritating to their stomach.

Comfrey Fifty-five percent of readers who said they tried comfrey topically reported that their skin problems cleared up after using the herb. Only 12 percent had tried it, though.

All that science can vouch for is that comfrey contains a product called allantoin that facilitates cell growth and development.

"For stitches and swelling after childbirth, a comfrey-leaf poultice was great," says a woman from Farmington, Michigan.

"When our son played soccer, poultices of crushed comfrey helped his bruises," says a mother from Circle Pines, Minnesota.

There is good evidence, however, that comfrey taken internally for several months can cause liver damage. "It should be safe to use topically, as long as you don't put it on open wounds through which comfrey might be absorbed," says Dr. Tyler.

Chamomile "Of all the properties of chamomile tea, the sleep-inducing effect is probably the least proven," says Dr. Tyler. That may explain the sketchy results our readers report. Forty-two percent tried drinking chamomile tea to induce sleep, but only 55 percent thought it helped them off to dreamland.

Several readers claim that it relaxes them and "soothes their nerves." But chamomile is better known for its antispasmodic (anticramp) and anti-inflammatory properties.

Several readers did note they were allergic to chamomile. In fact, chamomile, like ragweed, is a member of the Daisy family and should be avoided by anyone allergic to ragweed. If you develop symptoms of hives, hay fever or asthma after drinking chamomile tea, skip this remedy.

Jewelweed Only 53 percent of the people who applied jewelweed to a poison-ivy rash said that they got good relief from the mother of all itches. (Only 7 percent of the respondents had tried this remedy.)

"Even though its use persists, jewelweed doesn't really seem to be that effective for poison ivy," says Dr. DerMarderosian.

Jewelweed isn't available commercially. If you want to try this, the best bet is to use sap fresh from the plant, says Dr. Tyler.

Uva-ursi Also known as bearberry, this traditional herbal remedy for urinary infections was once listed as an official drug in the national formulary, says Dr. Tyler. "It contains arbutin, a chemical that breaks down under alkaline conditions to hydroquinone, an antiseptic and diuretic. It's useful for modest infections, but it works only if the urine is kept alkaline. Fresh fruit and vitamin C tend to make the urine acid."

That may be why only 53 percent of the readers who tried this herb for a urinary infection found that things cleared up well. Only 5 percent of the readers who wrote in actually tried this remedy.

Another hint for using uva-ursi properly: It must be taken as a cold tea to avoid its irritating tannins, says Dr. DerMarderosian. Soak the leaves in room-temperature water for 20 to 30 minutes.

Feverfew "After suffering from migraines for 35 years, I began taking feverfew at the onset (visual aura) of a migraine," says a woman from Roseville, Illinois. "It prevents the headache, nausea and all. I wish I'd known about feverfew 35 years ago!"

And a fellow from Casscoe, Arkansas, says, "feverfew is the only migraine preventive that I've ever found to work."

Unfortunately, though, these two readers are in the minority. Of the 7 percent of survey respondents who pitted feverfew against these head pounders, only 39 percent got good results--the poorest showing of all the herbal remedies. Thirty-four percent reported fair results and 27 percent, poor. "This is surprising since recent research suggests that it may be useful in preventing migraines," says Dr. DerMarderosian.

In a 1988 study, researchers in Nottingham, England, gave 30 migraine sufferers one capsule of feverfew per day. Another 30 migraineurs took blank (placebo) capsules. After four months, the groups switched capsules for another four months. While taking feverfew, the number of headaches was reduced 24 percent compared with the placebo. And the migraines that did occur were less painful (Lancet, July 23, 1988).

Why did Prevention readers get such poor results? "I think the problem may be that they were using an inferior product," says Dr. Tyler. "A recent study in Britain showed that the commercial feverfew products there varied tremendously in the amount of parthenolide, the active ingredient, they contain. And the United States does not have a standard that commercially available feverfew must meet."

The best bet, he says, is chewing a few fresh leaves every day. If fresh is unavailable or irritates your mouth, switch to the freeze-dried herb in capsules or tablets (heat-drying destroys parthenolide). Feverfew is another member of the Daisy family, so those with ragweed allergy should avoid it.

14 HERBAL HEALERS AND HELPERS

Which herbal remedies were rated highest by Prevention readers? Which were rated lowest? Below we've listed each remedy and the percentage of 5,000 survey respondents who say they had "good" results.

1. Aloe gel used topically for a minor burn (87%)
2. Cranberry juice for urinary infection (78%)
3. Garlic for a cold or infection (71%)
4. Garlic for reducing high blood pressure (70%)
5. Garlic for reducing cholesterol (68%)
6. Oil of clove applied topically for a toothache (68%)
7. Cherries for gout (67%)
8. Ginger to prevent nausea or motion sickness (67%)
9. Peppermint for gas or stomach upset (63%)
10. Comfrey used topically for a skin problem (55%)
11. Chamomile tea to help induce sleep (55%)
12. Jewelweed used topically for poison ivy (53%)
13. Uva-ursi for urinary infection (53%)
14. Feverfew to prevent migraines (39%)

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By SUSAN ZARROW

With GLORIA McVEIGH; LINDA RAO

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